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Nadia Mara, a multidimensional dancer of delicate precision and deep expressiveness, is leaving Atlanta Ballet. After 15 years of soulful performances that made her one of the company’s most beloved performers, Mara has accepted a position as principal dancer of the company of her alma mater, the Ballet Nacional Sodre/Uruguay (BNS) in her home city of Montevideo, Uruguay.

Mara is one of the last sparks remaining from what many regard as Atlanta Ballet’s golden age — the final years of John McFall’s 21-year tenure as the company’s artistic director. She follows numerous exits since the company’s administrative arm changed its artistic leader from McFall, an American with a contemporary vision, to Gennadi Nedvigin, a Russian with a vision grounded in classicism.

Nadia Mara with Atlanta Ballet

Nadia Mara was with Atlanta Ballet for 15 years. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Mara’s position as principal dancer is hard won. She came to Atlanta Ballet a finely trained classical dancer with a hunger to explore different contemporary styles. She leaves the company with the best of both McFall’s and Nedvigin’s aesthetics — a creative risk-taker with pristine classical technique and the ability to connect with her audience through emotions and tactile senses.

These qualities were clearly felt last fall, when Mara guested with BNS as Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin. Past teachers and extended family were in the audience of all three sold-out shows at Montevideo’s Auditorio Nacional Adela Reta. 

In the story, Tatiana falls in love with the aristocratic Onegin who scornfully rejects her, only to realize years later that he loves her. But it’s too late — she has married a prince, and, feelings aside, Tatiana rejects Onegin. In each performance, the final heartbreaking pas de deux (danced by Mara and Sergio Muzzio) was followed by numerous curtain calls, and when the house lights came up, audience members were still clapping, Mara said, “I felt so loved.” 

The role is somehow apt. Mara’s stirring performances garnered many fans in Atlanta, but after Nedvigin became artistic director four years ago, Mara has been noticeably — and inexplicably — absent from the spotlight. 

Nadia Mara dances with Atlanta Ballet.

Mara and Christian Clark in Atlanta Ballet’s production of “Moulin Rouge.” (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

A natural capacity to share her love of dance

Nadia Mara’s newly announced homecoming and elevated status with BNS have garnered interviews from numerous Uruguayan print, radio and television media outlets. El País, the Uruguayan national newspaper, has hailed Mara as the new principal dancer of BNS. A documentary film about Mara is in the works.

She’s feeling a bit giddy, and a little overwhelmed, she said via FaceTime last week. Eyes alight and smartly dressed in a denim jacket, her dark auburn hair tumbling over her shoulders, Mara was quick to respond with honesty, thoughtfulness and emotional intelligence.

“It took me a couple of years to actually make this decision,” Mara said. “I’ve been here for so long that Atlanta Ballet really is my family. I’ve been through a lot with them.”

Mara’s trajectory with Atlanta Ballet shows how contemporary dance can create a more musically nuanced and emotionally resonant classical dancer. Repertoire by such trailblazers as Jorma Elo and Ohad Naharin stretched Mara’s stylistic range. Her hunger for emotional risk-taking helped former Atlanta Ballet Choreographer-in-Residence Helen Pickett to realize four ballets, including two with speaking roles – a rarity among American ballet companies.

Pickett has said Mara is one of her top five dancers to work with. “She has amazing technique, and she also has the ability to convey emotions,” Pickett said. “I just love Nadia.”

McFall, the company’s former artistic director and mentor to Mara, spoke of her extraordinary ability to connect with people, and how her magnetism helped Atlanta Ballet to forge an important relationship with the city’s Latin American community. “There’s an aspect that is inherent in her zest for life, her joy,” McFall said. “She has this enthusiasm, which twirls around her. She has this natural capacity to share her love of dance beyond the studio and the stage.”

Mara was part of a tightly knit group of artists, and bonds of friendship remain with Tara Lee, now co-founder of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. “She was fearless, and you felt energized by that fearlessness,” Lee said. “It was never an energy that was to be competed against. It was energy that just wanted you to meet it, to bring out your power, too.”

Mara has a gift for connecting with an audience on an emotional level. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Mara’s journey to Atlanta Ballet

Nadia Mara was born into an artistic family, her mother a lover of music and ballet, and her father a prominent architect and painter with family roots in the Montevideo theater scene. Mara began to study dance at age 3, and began to improvise and compose dances at an early age. After several years of private studies with Mariel Odera, Mara entered Uruguay’s Escuela Nacional de Danza at age 12. Of many teachers, her modern dance teacher, Florencia Varela, nurtured Mara’s ability to “let go” of self-consciousness and connect with different feelings when she danced. Varela encouraged Mara not to fear those feelings, but to express them, and to continue to explore her creativity through improvisation.

Even then, Mara had an eye for both classical and contemporary styles. At home, she watched videos and practiced what she saw endlessly. Giselle echoed her classical training. Maurice Bejart’s Ballet for Life, a contemporary ballet set to music by Queen, was unlike anything she had seen at school. Mara loved dancers’ grounded movement qualities, even as Bejart’s style was classically based.

At 18, Mara graduated as the school’s best dancer while earning the Elena Smirnova Gold Medal. Curious to experiment with a wider range of dance techniques and to experience different cultures, Mara caught an opportunity to study at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and work as a trainee with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet).

In 2005, Mara joined Atlanta Ballet’s Fellowship program, because it offered a more diverse repertoire as well as a more family-like atmosphere and a clearer path toward getting a work visa.

“She had this exuberance,” said McFall. “When you have that level of commitment, it’s quite evident that there’s possibility everywhere.” 

Nadia Mara

Mara came to Atlanta Ballet to expand her range with contemporary dance. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

Pushing past her emotional comfort zone

McFall shooed Mara into the main company a year later, and Violette Verdy, an international ballet star and director, selected the 19-year-old to perform the title role in Giselle. Mara subsequently danced an enchanting Kitri in Don Quixote.

The company unveiled a sleek new headquarters in 2010 with plans to build a contemporary profile through world-class repertoire and innovative new commissions. Mara was clearly ready for this bold vision. “She was so open and available, that was key,” McFall said. It was apparent in “her appetite, and her capacity to get self-engaged at a deep level.”

In Atlanta Ballet’s 2011-12 season, McFall brought Jorma Elo’s First Flash — a life-changing experience for Mara. The work’s contemporary partnering demanded a closeness, a willingness to let go of the formal constraints of classicism – to trust her instincts and be more alive to the instant in connection with music, fellow dancers and audience.

Dancers spent countless hours in rehearsal, discovering how to loosen up and find a groove in the movement. Through this process, Mara remembered the feelings her modern dance teacher back home had encouraged — about energy, intention and expression of the soul. “It was like I was in a tight box,” Mara said. “And all of a sudden, the top of the box opened up, and I could finally feel like myself expressing, and not being afraid.”

“She discovered parts of herself that really impacted her depth of who she had inside of herself,” said McFall. “She discovered things and brought those to the surface, and then she was able to share that in everything she did, including classicism.”

Both Mara and McFall respect the formal elements of classicism. “It’s an aesthetic art form, and we are trained for that,” said Mara. “But I don’t think there is a true dance, a true art form, if we don’t express ourselves through the movement. Otherwise, it becomes gymnastics. To be able to connect with the music, and to connect with your partner, and to connect through the eyes — is one of the most important things there is. If you can do that, the audience will feel it with you.”

Mara’s dancing grew more visceral through Ohad Naharin’s influential Gaga movement language. Naharin’s Minus 16 gave her a channel for expressing her grief after her mother died in 2013. Naharin’s Gaga work goes deep, enhancing a dancer’s self-awareness at many levels. Mara has seen how Gaga practice can open dancers’ minds, and make them more versatile and receptive to many different ways of moving.

“I learned a whole different way of using my body, not just for contemporary, but for classical. You know, the flesh, the bones, the sensations of moving through thickness, or moving through water,” Mara said.

One time, the company scheduled Gaga class right before a run-through of Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas — one of the most challenging classical works in the company repertoire. Dancers feared they might have difficulty making the transition between such markedly different styles. But after a brief warm-up for the pointe work, Mara found Seven Sonatas surprisingly easy.

“We were free, but we were engaged,” said Mara. “Our muscles were ready to go. It was fast and clean and fresh, not only in the body, but in the mind. We were so aware of each muscle, each bone, that we could dance a lot better.”

Mara is perhaps best remembered in her emotionally compelling character Marguerite Gautier, the faded French courtesan inspired by the character in Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias, in Pickett’s ballet inspired by Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real. Mara’s hunger for pushing past her emotional comfort zone took her so deep into her character that she nearly lost herself. “I went full on,” she said. “I was Marguerite in and outside of the studio.”

Mara researched the play, practiced her character’s expressions in the mirror and learned to physicalize her emotions through both body and voice. “I was crazy, but I felt I had to get to that point, to express what Helen wanted me to express,” Mara said. “There was no holding back.”

Nadia Mara in Atlanta Ballet's "Camino Real."

Nadia Mara as Marguerite in “Camino Real,” perhaps her signature role at Atlanta Ballet. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

Shifting tides at Atlanta Ballet

Camino Real was an artistic triumph of that era – multi-layered, emotionally riveting and timelessly relevant – and one of few productions by an American ballet company that successfully incorporated speaking into some of the dancers’ roles. But by 2015, priorities on Atlanta Ballet’s administrative side were going in a different direction from McFall’s ideals, and it was decided that the company needed a change of artistic leadership and a turn toward classicism. Just about every level of the organization was about to be destabilized.

In August 2015, Atlanta Ballet announced that McFall would depart. After the formality of a six-month search, the Board of Trustees appointed Gennadi Nedvigin, a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, as artistic director. Mara recalled that the company had connected well with the Russian dancer when he came to Atlanta to stage Yuri Possokhov’s Classical Symphony just months earlier. But dancers were heartbroken to see McFall go.

“For us, he was more than a director,” Mara said. “He was a father, he was a mentor.” As McFall brought new challenges each day, he inspired each of them to identify what was meaningful, draw from life-experience and become a self-directed artist. “Everybody’s unique in that sense,” said McFall, who continues to mentor dancers online. “You let them go, and you say, I trust you; do it.”

The summer after McFall left, Nedvigin invited Mara to dance with him in his final performance at “Despertares,” an international ballet gala in Guadalajara, Mexico. Appearing on a star-studded roster, the pair performed a duet from Yuri Possokhov’s “Swimmer” and joined Despertares founder Isaac Hernandez in a trio from “Les Lutins” by Johan Kobborg. Mara learned the dances from video and Nedvigin joined her in the studio a week or two before the gala. “We had a great time and a great connection, and it was very successful, and we got really good press,” she said.

But after Nedvigin took over the company, it became clear that, aesthetically, he and McFall were very different. Nedvigin’s conservative repertoire had a more classical base. He implemented the Vaganova training system used at his alma mater, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Nedvigin’s approach valued uniformity and technical execution over individuality and expressiveness.

Nedvigin declined requests to comment for this article.

Sarah Hillmer, then ballet master for Atlanta Ballet, explained that, in Nedvigin’s aesthetic, “showing emotion is not what constitutes a good dancer.” In class and rehearsal, the new emphasis on classical form and shape pushed the value of emotion “to the very edge of the canvas,” Hillmer said.

Where McFall had created an open environment, Nedvigin and the newly hired ballet master Roman Rykine took a harsher and more authoritative Russian approach. 

“It felt a bit like we were going back to school,” Mara said. But she also saw value in returning to classicism, since the dancers came from so many different countries with different styles of training. “It’s not like in Russia, where dancers are all mostly born there and trained in the same Vaganova technique.”

Nedvigin’s approach and the mindset that came with it began to calcify by the second year, after nearly half the dancers departed and were replaced with 14 new recruits. Nedvigin seemed to have his hands full, developing the younger dancers’ bodies and technical skills. The more seasoned professionals, such as Mara and Jackie Nash, were at a different artistic level altogether. In daily company class, they received less attention than the new dancers. Mara stayed focused, and found ways to grow stronger without losing her expressiveness.

“I thought, I can improve my technique this way,” said Mara. “But these other things that I learned from all the people I worked with before Gennadi, they were stamped in my soul, in my heart. Nobody could ever take that away from me.”

Even as she improved, Mara noticed that the principal roles she had once danced,  Kitri and Giselle, were going to younger and less experienced dancers. Both Mara and Nash had superior track records dancing contemporary styles of Alexander Ekman, Jorma Elo and Douglas Lee — choreographers that share lineage with Kylian — but again, Mara and Nash were overlooked for the casts of Kylian’s Return to a Strange Land.

Guest choreographers and repetiteurs, such as Ana Maria Lucaciu, had to fight to get Mara and other McFall-era veterans cast in works they were setting on the company; they argued that the newer dancers were not at the artistic level necessary to interpret the works the way they should be done. Ballet aficionados expressed indignation at casting decisions that pushed Mara and Nash into the background, or altogether off stage. 

Mara was mature enough to objectively see what was happening. She had been given a chance to dance Giselle at 19 and she understood Nedvigin’s desire to give young dancers such opportunities. She also understood that when artistic directors change, it can mean that preferences for dancers change, just as a company’s politics and priorities change.

Hillmer watched how Mara dealt with rejection. “It’s a little death when the director that you had before thinks the world of you, and invites in choreographers who also think the world of you, to go through that shift,” Hillmer said. “You don’t know you sign up for that life as a dancer when you sign up for it. It’s the directors, it’s their choosing. That’s why dancers leave companies and go find a director they do love and want to stay there for forever.”

Nadia Mara

Mara is “at a point in her career where she’s ready to fly” says fellow dancer Tara Lee.

“Such an amazing dancer”

When Mara left Uruguay, Ballet Nacional Sodre/Uruguay was struggling. But in 2010, former American Ballet Theatre star Julio Bocca stepped in as artistic director and began to build the company’s size, budget and repertoire. He knew of Mara and had invited her to return as a guest artist. But until recently, Mara had been too busy.

By the time Bocca’s successor Igor Yebra reached out to Mara, her docket was clear enough to begin conversations. From those talks, and after the Cranko Trust had seen her audition video, Yebra offered Mara a dream role — Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin.

After the company had learned Onegin last summer, Reid Anderson, former artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, came to coach them. Mara was first in the studio the day he came. “He looked at me, he’s like, ‘I can finally see you in person. You’re such an amazing dancer. You can really move. I’m excited to be working with you.’”

Anderson, a contemporary of McFall, has spoken of the merging of ballet and modern aesthetics during the past 50 years — a visceral way of moving, from the inside out — qualities Mara has cultivated during her years at Atlanta Ballet with McFall and has enhanced more recently as she built up her classical technique. 

Mara is scheduled to start her new position in Uruguay as soon as Covid-19 restrictions allow her to return, hopefully by the end of June. After pandemic restrictions are lifted, Mara is slated to dance the lead in Giselle. “She’s at a point in her career where she’s ready to fly and use all the tools that she has — all the depth of her, all the layers that are in there,” said Tara Lee. “It’s time to let them be shared, in a place that will really match what she has to give.”

Mara is thankful for her time at Atlanta Ballet — both the triumphs and the uncertainties that made her stronger. “I felt really supported by everyone that has been by my side,” she said. “I just feel so blessed. I feel happy about my career here. I know I’ll miss everyone. And I couldn’t imagine a better way of leaving because I’m leaving on a very happy note.”

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